The beautiful sun-kissed beaches and streets of Rio de Janeiro are among the most popular attractions in the entire southern hemisphere for tourists, in addition to being second to only Sao Paolo as the most populated city in the country. Arguably best known for its annual carnival, there is much more to discover and enjoy in this glorious location.
Rio de Janeiro was officially founded in 1565, though Portuguese explorers initially discovered the city some 63 years earlier. It was these travellers that named the city, with the English translation of Rio de Janeiro reading as River of January. It was the first month of the year that these visitors entered the shores, and they mistakenly believed that the city was positioned upon the mouth of a river.
Rio de Janeiro endured a troubled early history, dominated by disputes over its export of sugar, gold and diamonds. Brazil earned freedom from Portuguese rule in 1889 (though in most Brazilian cities, including Rio de Janeiro, Portuguese remains the official spoken language), and Rio de Janeiro began to rapidly expand, hence the huge population that remains today. It was the nation’s capital city until 1960, when the accolade was shifted to Brasilia, but Rio de Janeiro remains one of the most vibrant, important cities in the country.
Language and Climate
As mentioned above, Portuguese is the official spoken language of Rio de Janeiro and it is very strongly advisable that you learn the lingo before heading out. A small minority of locals may be willing to communicate in Spanish (you may unwittingly offend by using such a tongue, however; not all South Americans speak this language), but English will not get you very far outside of tourist locations.
The climate and weather in Rio de Janeiro is tropical, and thus varies depending on the time of year. February, the month of the famous Rio Carnival, is usually the hottest time of year, and July sees the heart of the Brazilian winter; expect temperatures to drop by up to ten degrees around this time. December is the height of Rio’s rainy season.
Where to Stay in Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro is divided into four geographical zones; Central, South, North and West.
The South Zone is recommended as the best place for Rio de Janeiro novices to station themselves, particularly the Cococabana region. This area is tourist-friendly, packed with reasonably priced hotels and gorgeous beaches, allowing for all kinds of aquatic activities for the adventurous such as hang gliding, surfing and water skiing, as well as huge urban forest the Tijuca National Park.
Central Rio (also known as downtown) houses the historical and financial cores of the city, and hosts many museums and other tourist attractions.
North Rio is where you will find a number of the cities slums, but also the famous Maracanã stadium (home of football teams, the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2016 Summer Olympics and countless concerts), and many samba schools for those wishing to lean the country’s national dance for carnival.
The West Zone covers almost half the city, comprising of parks, beaches, rail links and residential homes.
Getting Around Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janiero is fairly easy to negotiate on foot, and the city has a public cycle-sharing policy in place, but there are public transport alternatives. The city has a bus service, and minivans (also known as vans in the city) regularly patrol the roads for reasonable prices. Unlike buses, these vans do not have pre-designated stopping points – simply call “Para!” when you wish to alight. The Metro has also undergone a luxurious redevelopment, with all train carriages air-conditioned, safe, clean and rapid.
If you plan to hire a car, prepare yourself for a slightly frustrating experience. Traffic is plentiful in Rio de Janeiro, and parking spaces significantly less so. The city also has extremely strict drink-driving laws, and local police are not shy about stopping drivers at regular checkpoints.
Culture and Attractions in Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro is regarded as the cultural hub of Brazil. The city is at the forefront of the country’s film industry, hosting an annual film festival and providing location shooting to many international blockbusters and domestic television shows.
Rio also hosts the Biblioteca Nacional (National Library), a reader’s dream with a collection of over 9 million books that make it one of the world’s largest libraries, as well as the Academia Brasileira de Letras (Brazilian Academy of Letters), which is dedicated to promoting Brazilian literature.
Lovers of the performing arts will be sure to investigate the Municipal Theatre, and anybody seeking the tranquility of green space will find solace at the famous Botanical Gardens (a complete and varied history and sample of Brazilian botany), Parque Lage (a 1920s mansion re-designed to be a pubic park since the 1960s) and Quinta da Boa Vista (a historical public park that once provided residence of the Emperors of Brazil, and also houses the National Museum of Brazil).
Paco Imperial, an 18th Century palace that again housed the nation’s ruling classes, will fascinate historians. Meanwhile, if you’re seeking other museums, Rio de Janeiro can offer a Museum of Modern Art, the Carmen Miranda Museum (dedicated to the fabled singer and actress) and Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, Brazil’s National Museum of Fine Arts.
Of course, being a major Brazilian city, Rio de Janeiro is also football crazy. Four major teams complete out of the city; Botafogo, Vasco da Gama, Fluminese and Flamengo. The latter two clubs play out their home fixtures in the famous 78,838-capacity Maracanã Stadium.
Eating out in Rio
Traditional Brazilian cuisine is heavy on the protein, so it’s a carnivore’s dream. Like squabbling siblings, Brazil and neighbouring nation Argentina are in competition for just about every accolade, and each declare themselves the champions of barbequed meats. Many Brazilian restaurants will offer substantial steaks grilled to perfection and lightly seasoned, in addition to a variety of skewered snacks. Look out for a churrascaria restaurant, and wear your loosest-fitting trousers; this is an all-you-can-eat meat feast.
Feijoada is a traditional Brazilian dish beloved of Rio residents. Often consumed for lunch of a Saturday, this meal consists of stewed beans dowsed in gravy, accompanied by pork cracklings, potatoes, kale and sliced oranges – allegedly an aid to digestion.
Street food is also available on almost every corner, with a variety of sweet and savoury options open to any visitor. Empadas (stuffed pastries), sacolé (a sweet fruit popsicle), quiejo coalho (a skewer of cheese) and pastels (hot pastry pockets usually served for breakfast) will tantalise taste buds, or if you’re looking for something more upmarket, gourmet dining is becoming increasingly popular in Rio, especially freshly caught seafood.